February 26, 2024

Over the last few weeks, we’ve gotten a pretty good idea of what Donald Trump would do if given a second chance in the White House. And it is neither exaggeration nor hyperbole to say that it looks an awful lot like a set of proposals meant to give the former president the power and unchecked authority of a strongman.

Trump would purge the federal government of as many civil service possible. In their place, he would install an army of political and ideological loyalists whose fealty to Trump’s interests would stand far and above their commitment to either the rule of law or the Constitution.

With the help of these unscrupulous allies, Trump plans to turn the Department of Justice against his political opponents, prosecuting his critics and rivals. He would use the military to crush protests under the Insurrection Act — which he hoped to do during the summer of 2020 — and turn the power of the federal government against his perceived enemies. “If I happen to be president and I see somebody who’s doing well and beating me very badly, I say, ‘Go down and indict them.’ They’d be out of business. They’d be out of the election,” Trump said in a recent interview on the Spanish-language network Univision.

As the former president wrote in a disturbing and authoritarian-minded Veteran’s Day message to supporters (itself echoing a speech he delivered that same to day to supporters in New Hampshire): “We pledge to you that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, Fascists, and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, lie, steal, and cheat on Elections, and will do anything possible, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America, and the American dream.”

Trump has other plans as well. As several of my Times colleagues reported last week, he hopes to institute a program of mass detainment and deportation of undocumented immigrants. His aides have already drawn up plans for new detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border, where anyone suspected of illegal entry would be held until authorities have settled their immigration status. Given the former president’s rhetoric attacking political enemies and other supposedly undesirable groups like the homeless — Trump has said that the government should “remove” homeless Americans and put them in tents on “large parcels of inexpensive land in the outer reaches of the cities” — there’s little doubt that some American citizens would find themselves in these large and sprawling camps.

Included in this effort to rid the United States of as many immigrants as possible is a proposal to target people here legally — like green card holders or people on student visas — who harbors supposedly “jihadist sympathies” or espouses views deemed anti-American. Trump also intends to circumvent the 14th Amendment so that he can end birthright citizenship for the children of unauthorized immigrants.

In the past, Trump has gestured at seeking a third term in office after serving a second four-year term in the White House. “We are going to win four more years,” Trump said during his 2020 campaign. “And then after that, we’ll go for another four years because they spied on my campaign. We should get a redo of four years.” This too would violate the Constitution but then, in a world in which Trump gets his way on his authoritarian agenda, the Constitution — and the rule of law — would already be a dead letter.

It might be tempting to dismiss the former president’s rhetoric and plans as either jokes or the ravings of a lunatic who may find eventually himself in jail. But to borrow an overused phrase, it is important to take the words of both presidents and presidential candidates seriously as well as literally.

They may fail — in fact, they often do — but presidents try to keep their campaign promises and act on their campaign plans. In a rebuke to those who urged us not to take him literally in 2016, we saw Trump attempt to do what he said he would do during his first term in office. He said he would “build a wall,” and he tried to build a wall. He said he would try to keep Muslims out of the country, and he tried to keep Muslims out of the country. He said he would do as much as he could to restrict immigration from Mexico, and he did as much as he could, and then some, to restrict immigration from Mexico.

He even suggested, in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, that he would reject an election defeat. Four years later, he lost his bid for re-election. We know what happened next.

In addition to Trump’s words, which we should treat as a reliable guide to his actions, desires and preoccupations, we have his allies, who are as open in their contempt for democracy as Trump is. Ensconced at institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the Claremont Institute, Trump’s political and ideological allies have made no secret of their desire to install a reactionary Caesar at the head of the American state. As Damon Linker noted in his essay on these figures for the Opinion section, they exist to give “Republican elites permission and encouragement to do things that just a few years ago would have been considered unthinkable.”

Americans are obsessed with hidden meanings and secret revelations. This is why many of us are taken with the tell-all memoirs of political operatives or historical materials like the Nixon tapes. We often pay the most attention to those things that are hidden from view. But the mundane truth of American politics is that much of what we want to know is in plain view. You don’t have to search hard or seek it out; you just have to listen.

And Donald Trump is telling us, loud and clear, that he wants to end American democracy as we know it.

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